The afterlife is a hot setting for ambitious TV comedies. Following in the footsteps of NBC’s The Good Place and Amazon’s Forever, the TBS sitcom Miracle Workers takes place in heaven, which in this version is more like Dunder Mifflin (The Office’s Angela Kinsey even has a recurring role) than a celestial paradise.
Created by Simon Rich, and based on his novel What in God’s Name, Miracle Workers focuses on the workplace drones of Heaven Inc., a drab corporation run by God (Steve Buscemi), a vain, capricious idiot who only has his position because his rich parents bankrolled the whole enterprise. Bored and frustrated with the state of life on Earth, God decides he’s more interested in opening a theme restaurant, and makes plans to destroy all of humanity in two weeks.
However, plucky Heaven employee Eliza (Blockers’ Geraldine Viswanathan) isn’t willing to allow humanity to go down without a fight, and she makes a bet with God that if she and her twitchy Department of Answered Prayers co-worker Craig (Daniel Radcliffe) can answer one “impossible” prayer before the two weeks are up, Earth will be spared. And so Eliza and Craig are tasked with getting two socially awkward humans to share a first kiss, something they've prayed for independently but are too timid and anxious to make happen on their own.
It’s a simple, straightforward goal that doesn’t really require an entire seven-episode season to play out, even in episodes that barely run 20 minutes, minus commercials. So the story gets padded with useless subplots, mostly about God engaged in some petty, moronic scheme, aided by his put-upon right-hand man Sanjay (Karan Soni). God’s B-plots are easily the worst part of the show, full of lazy, vulgar humor that makes the character more grating. In one episode, God insists on killing the blasphemous Bill Maher by making his penis explode; in another, God gets diarrhea from drinking too many cold-pressed juices, and forces Sanjay to help him on the toilet.
Meanwhile, Eliza and Craig have a sort of sweet dynamic as they do everything in their somewhat-meager power to get these two doofuses on Earth to realize their mutual attraction. Viswanathan, who had a breakout performance in Blockers, is the show’s best asset, making Eliza into a grounded, believable character in the midst of this absurd setting. Everyone else in the main cast is pretty one-dimensional, and late-breaking efforts to build sympathy for the incompetent, inconsiderate God fall flat. It’s difficult to root for this dysfunctional enterprise to succeed when Heaven Inc. is such a dismal operation, with irritating employees.
Every revelation about how the system works and what each department handles only makes the show’s world-building less effective. On The Good Place, the bureaucratic intricacies of the afterlife are essential to the concept, and each new facet builds upon what came before, giving a fuller picture of how everything functions. On Forever, the afterlife is mysterious and unknowable, something the main characters have to navigate without any kind of guide or instructions. Miracle Workers combines the worst aspects of those approaches, piling on inconsistent, contradictory details about the inner workings of Heaven Inc., and pivoting to an unconvincing ode to human nature in the final episodes.
The main humans, indecisive loners Sam (Jon Bass) and Laura (Sasha Compère), aren’t exactly stellar examples of the species, and their misadventures on the road to romance don’t inspire much confidence for the future of life on Earth. The performances by Bass and Compère are bland and muted, and the audience never learns enough about Sam and Laura as people for them to register as anything more than plot devices. The heavenly characters are a bit livelier, although Radcliffe goes overboard with Craig’s manic nervousness, and Buscemi plays God as such a smarmy jerk that his presence is almost always an intrusion.
Guest stars like Tim Meadows, Chris Parnell and Tituss Burgess are largely wasted in throwaway roles, and a running joke about a newscaster traumatized by all of the Answered Prayers team’s meddling gets old by its second appearance. Creator Rich previously worked on Saturday Night Live, whose Lorne Michaels is an executive producer, and Miracle Workers often feels like an SNL sketch that has gone on far too long. Rich’s previous series, the FXX sitcom Man Seeking Woman, had a similarly cloying, whimsical tone, throwing together random supernatural occurrences to contrast with mundane personal interactions.
Miracle Workers has been billed as an anthology series, although there’s no indication of what sort of story future seasons might tell, but it actually might have benefited from an ongoing approach instead. By sticking to the plot of Rich’s novel and aiming for a tidy resolution, the creators have cut off other storytelling avenues that might have made the show’s world feel less insular. Instead of a story about the quirky workplace culture of a corporate afterlife, it’s just a labored romance between two boring losers, with supernatural screw-ups pulling the strings.
Premiering tonight at 10:30 ET/PT on PBS, Miracle Workers stars Daniel Radcliffe, Steve Buscemi, Geraldine Viswanathan, Jon Bass, Karan Soni, Sasha Compere and Lolly Adefope.